A Film a Week - The Captain / Der Hauptmann

The biggest mistake the popular culture did with the Nazism is failing to even try to understand it. It is not some sort of mythical evil similar to the evil portrayed in religious scripts, it is a complex phenomenon whose perversity comes from the combination of banality, primitive hatred towards the others (whoever they might be), bureaucracy, fear of authority (real or assumed), and the petty nature of a small man who often does just about anything that would secure his existence. That means that fascism can come back again in some other form if it is not recognized as such in time, and all the WWII mythomania (both of its blends, Soviet and American) would do little to help fighting it. Understanding the mechanics of the system, the general and the most specific ones), might just do the trick. As it goes for cinema, The Captain, directed by Robert Schwentke, could serve as a good example of getting things right.

Schwentke's career goes two ways. Back at home, the German-born director is interested in bizarre, but pretty much true stories, like it was the case with Family Jewels, the semi-autobiographic film about the man who becomes obsessed with the idea to steal his amputated cancerous testicle. In Hollywood, where he made the most of his films, he has earned his reputation as a reliable genre helmer with a couple of thrillers (Tattoo and Flight Plan), a spy action flick RED and the two Divergent sequels under his belt. The Captain can be certainly put in the former group: it is a stylish, artistic war movie based on strange, but true events and shot in appropriate black and white widescreen.

In the opening shot we see our title hero Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) as a simple German soldier running away from his own army's patrol. It is early spring of 1945, the landscape looks muddy, his side is clearly losing the war, but his chances to survive as a deserter, looter and hunter-gatherer are quite slim, since the sadistic bureaucratic side of the Nazi system is still intact. It is the matter of time when he would be shot. However, his luck changes after he finds a perfect Luftwaffe captain's uniform in an abandoned car. He assumes the captain's identity and invents a bogus top-secret mission for the Fuhrer himself that revolves around scanning the state of things in the rear and dealing with the deserters.

Soon enough he is joined by the band of misfits, deserters and stranded soldiers like himself and for them he poses as a figure of authority. They are all in a grave danger whenever they come across any of the regular military and military police units, but Herold authoritative pose is convincing enough and his sadistic imagination is wild enough to keep him safe, even though it means he is about to commit a horrendous crime: the mass execution at the nearby prison labour camp for the deserters, thieves and looters.

The pitch-black and sometimes uncomfortably funny tone of the film does not come just from Herold's boldness and the willingness of his ragtag companions to join him in his crimes, but also from the reactions of the regular army and legal figures. Everybody he encounters from those ranks is at first sceptical about him and his outlandish backstory, but everybody is also willing to go along with it for their own reasons: the farmers and the townsfolk will use him and his "soldiers" to deal with the looters, the prison camp command wants to scheme its way towards the goal of getting rid of the "dead weight" - the inmates, and even the opposition he meets is more or less just of the procedural type. And that basically draws a picture of the Nazi regime in all of its monstrous network of deranged grand ideas and selfish interests.

Hubacher is stellar all the way through the film. His character is complex and so is his transformation from a benign deserter to a cold blooded executor. He starts as a man we are bound to root for and than gets chilly, cold and power-crazy. He is matched well the rest of the cast, Milan Peschel as his first follower Freytag, Frederick Lau as unscrupulous killer Kipinski, Brend Hölscher as the not-very-smart lieutenant Schütte, Alexander Fehling as the prison commander Junker and Waldemar Kobus as the bureaucrat Hansen. They are all doing a good job avoiding the contraptions of the broad Nazi stereotypes, but they are not milking the sympathy from the audiences - they are still monsters, just the different kind.

The stylistic approach Schwentke goes for also suits the film well and various influences can be read from it. The director is not shy to dig deep in the dirt and mud of war in the vein of later Soviet war films like Klimov's Come and See, be bleak like New German Cinema classics like Schlöndorf's The Tin Drum and at places shocking as Pasolini's Salo. The visceral qualities of the topic itself are paired with very cerebral use of deadpan humour and a dash of spectacle.

However, not all the tricks work: the title card after the bombing of the camp could as well be the end of the film, the following shot in colour is kinda out of place and the complete extended coda is completely unnecessary. The ending credits scene in which Herold and his gang are driving in the vintage six-wheel wartime car through the city streets of a present day German town also seems a bit on the nose as a metaphor that the new fascism that is on the rise will sure have its own Willi Herold.

Regardless of some minor problems, The Captain is the film that will leave the audience with a strong impression, and make the people think about it at least for a moment. And the blend of timeliness and timelessness adds to a point made in a smart and elegant fashion.

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